Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Unlike many Hindus and Sikhs who emigrated to India at the time of partition, Christians for the most part remained in newly-founded Pakistan. According to the 1998 Census, Christians make up approximately 1.59 per cent of Pakistan’s total population. In fact, the exact number is unknown and estimates range from less than 2 million to as many as 3 million. There are Christian communities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including around 70,000 in Peshawar, but the bulk of Pakistani Christians live in Karachi, Lahore, Faisalabad and numerous small communities in Punjab.
Christianity has a centuries-long history in South Asia, although many of Pakistan’s Christian community are descendants of low-caste Hindus who converted under British colonial rule, in order to escape caste discrimination. Christians provided labour to British garrisons, and Pakistani cantonment towns still have Christian settlements. There were also Christian traders from Goa and elsewhere who settled in Karachi. Although Pakistan is a Muslim country, the legacy of the caste system continues to be reflected in profoundly discriminatory attitudes towards Christians among many people belonging to the Muslim majority.
While Christians in Pakistan are overwhelmingly poor – working in menial jobs as cleaners, labourers and farmhands – there are notable exceptions. Christians have made significant contributions to social sector development in Pakistan, evident in the building of educational institutions, hospitals and health facilities throughout the country.
Yet, like other religious minorities, Christians have faced discrimination and victimization throughout Pakistan’s history. This is evident, for instance, in the nationalization of Christian properties and institutions under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971–77). Still largely unaddressed, this has resulted in a loss of control over the very educational and health institutions the Christian community has built.
Since 2001, violence and discrimination against Christians has increased. Seen as connected to the ‘West’ due to their faith, Christians have at times been scapegoated for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, as well as the immense human suffering seen as a consequence of interventions in other countries with large Muslim populations. Violence has not abated since then, with an unprecedented suicide attack on a Christian church in September 2013. In what was also the largest attack against the Christian community in the country’s history, suicide bombers massacred more than 100 people at the All Saints Church in Peshawar as the service was ending. Prior to this, over 100 Christian homes were destroyed by two large mob attacks against Christian communities in Punjab in March and April 2013.
Christians have continued to suffer targeted violence and other abuses, including land-grabbing in rural areas, abductions and forced conversion, and the vandalization of homes and churches. One of the worst cases involved the killing of a Christian couple, Shama and Shehzad, in November 2014 in the town of Kot Radha Krishna by a mob. The couple, who were parents to three young children with the eldest child aged six at the time, were beaten unconscious and thrown into an open furnace shaft after rumours circulated that they had desecrated a Qur’an.
Other attacks by militants have also persisted, including in March 2015, the simultaneous targeting of two churches in Lahore by Taliban suicide bombers which resulted in at least 15 casualties. However, one of the worst incidents for the community took place in Lahore on 27 March 2016 when Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), bombed Gulshan-i-Iqbal park and killed more than 70 people, mostly women and children. Although the majority of the victims were Muslims, the intended target were the many low-income Christian families who had gathered in the park that day to celebrate Easter.
While the recent spate of high-profile violent attacks against Christians have drawn considerable attention to their plight in Pakistan – including an assault in December 2017 on a church in Quetta, subsequently claimed by ISIS, that killed nine worshippers and injured 60 more – they are only part of the picture of everyday violence and persecution the community experiences, including the constant threat of blasphemy allegations. Neighbourhoods have been attacked, homes set ablaze and individuals burnt alive as a result of false accusations.
In addition, many Pakistani Christians have been convicted of blasphemy under the country’s repressive laws, including the widely covered case of Asia Bibi, who in 2010 was the first woman in Pakistan sentenced to death under 295-C after she was accused of religious defamation by Muslim women with whom she worked harvesting berries in rural Punjab. Despite sustained pressure from activists, international organizations and other groups to suspend the sentence, in October 2014 Lahore’s high court upheld the decision.. According to data by the Centre for Research and Solidarity, of an estimated 434 blasphemy offenders documented between 1953 and 2012, 114 were Christians – meaning that, while estimates suggest Christians only make up a small percentage of the Pakistani population, they represent 26 per cent of those charged under the blasphemy laws.
Besides the constant threat of violence, Christians also experience many forms of everyday discrimination in areas such as employment, where they are typically relegated to the most menial tasks, such as cleaning and garbage collection. At the institutional level, job quotas for religious minorities in the public sector remain largely unfilled, despite a five per cent minority quota in government jobs. In official government statistics from 2010-11, only 2.6 per cent of federal jobs were held by non-Muslims, and approximately 70 per cent were in the two lowest grades. Those government jobs filled by minorities are largely designated for sanitary workers, so they do not present a substantial challenge regarding the nature of work available to the Christian community and others.
Christians are also among the country’s most marginalized communities, with limited economic opportunities. In Lahore, for example, the Christian population accounts for the bulk of the city’s sanitation workers and street-sweepers – a fact that reinforces their stigmatization – while most of their supervisors are Muslim. Like other vulnerable minorities, Christians are especially at risk of even worse exploitation: significant numbers of Christians residing in Sindh and Punjab work under harsh conditions as bonded labourers in areas such as carpet-weaving and the brick kiln industry.
Christian women, in particular, face multiple forms of discrimination and so are vulnerable to a range of abuses, including forced conversion, forced marriage and sexual violence. Until recently, Christians in Pakistan were not by law afforded the right to divorce. Amended in 1981, the Christian Divorce Act only allowed a man to separate from his wife if there were charges of adultery, making divorce proceedings a humiliating process for many. This law led to many Christian women being forced to convert to Islam or be married according to Islamic tradition in order to obtain a right to divorce. The Christian divorce law was finally changed in May 2016, allowing couples to obtain a divorce without recrimination.
The prevalence of forced conversion and marriage of Christians women in Pakistan is in part a consequence of gaps surrounding marriage and Personal Laws in the country. Although it is not possible to determine accurately how common this practice is, recent estimates suggest that between 100 and 700 Christian women (including minors), are victims of forced conversion and marriage each year. One positive development is the finalization of the Christian Marriage and Divorce Bill, which after extended discussions was sent to the law ministry in October 2017 for review.
Updated June 2018
Minorities and indigenous peoples in